September 30, 2013
Towards a World Class Education
by Dr. Farish Noor @www.nst.com.my
THAT those in the corridors of power now recognise the urgent need to restore the standing and prestige of our national institutions of higher learning is a timely development indeed and even more urgent is the need to take some pragmatic and practical steps in the right direction.
Malaysia, with an emerging youth sector that will soon be demanding access to higher education as a means of attaining upward social mobility, cannot take higher education for granted, and in time to come, may also realise that an improved higher education system would also add to the country’s pull factor if and when Malaysia is seen as a destination for foreign scholars as well.
However, as has been noted by myself and many other academicians, the major stumbling block Malaysia faces at the moment is the lack of access to the global academic arena and the relatively low profile that our institutions have in relation to better-known universities and colleges in the developed Western world.
That it has come to this is a sad reflection of how our standing has fallen of late, though it was not always the case: Universiti Malaya was once regarded as among the best universities in Asia, and among its alumni are many academics, technocrats, businessmen and leaders of other countries in Asia today.
It has been argued by some that one factor that may have contributed to our relative decline was and is the phenomena of linguistic nationalism that ultimately led to the shift to Bahasa Malaysia, perhaps at the cost of English.
Though this shift did not necessarily erode the standard of teaching and knowledge production in our institutions of knowledge, it did mean that fewer and fewer academics and students outside Malaysia were able to access, and appreciate, whatever developments and discoveries were being made in our universities.
The pressing question at the moment is this: how can we raise the profile of Malaysia’s universities in as quick a period as possible, without compromising standards of teaching, knowledge production and academic integrity?
There are no simple answers to the question here, for the matter at hand extends beyond mere epistemic concerns and spill over into the domain of the political as well.
Yet political decisions can be made if there is enough political will and mettle to address the realities of the day. The linguistic-nationalists among us may balk at the idea that English is the dominant language in global academic circles at the moment, but that is the reality one has to swallow.
If they are dismayed by the sad realities of the age we live in, they might find comfort among French, German, Japanese and other academics who likewise have come to accept the fact that the world does not speak those languages.
Pragmatism has to be the order of the day here, and I have witnessed first-hand how practical steps can be taken to resolve the question of how to raise the profile of a country’s education sector.
During my last years as an academic in Germany, I noted that even Germany’s hallowed halls of learning have come to accept the necessity of making room for English: Berlin’s Graduate School project was aimed at luring non-German students to pursue their higher studies in the country and it was a school where the mode of instruction was in English.
Prior to that, the biggest problem faced by foreign students in Germany (where education costs are surprisingly reasonable, even relatively cheap by comparison) was the need to take a two or three-year course in academic German.
Then we have the Indonesian model next door to consider as well. Indonesia happens to have a large, lively and, I would argue, exceptionally well-appointed higher education sector.
Its universities are among the most diverse and progressive I have ever taught and researched in, but again the major drawback is that almost all of the courses offered are in Bahasa Indonesia — which is a negative push factor if you happen to be a prospective student from India, China or elsewhere.
Of late, however, efforts have been made to improve the standard of English in universities. The Indonesian government has earmarked a number of university journals — ranked as the best in the country — for special consideration and has made it necessary for them to publish in English. (I know this to be true as I happen to sit on one of the editorial boards.)
Compelling Indonesian scholars to write and publish in English also means that the journals would have editorial boards made up of foreign academics, raising the standard of peer review and thus raising its standing among other journals as well.
Thus, after decades of linguistic nationalism, Indonesia’s universities are now slowly but surely making their entry into the arena of international academia, which is highly competitive.
This was another example of how simple decisions may have long-lasting and even permanent consequences, for the better.
Malaysia’s case is, of course, particular to itself, but the ever-competitive nature of higher education today means that whatever reforms that need to be made have to be made soon and with a degree of political will and conviction.
Here, one hopes that the leaders who take such steps will have the grit and wherewithal to bite the bullet when necessary, even at the risk of appearing unpopular in the short run. But whatever decisions Malaysia may take in the near future, the fact is that the world is not about to slow down for Malaysia to catch up.
Higher education serves many other purposes than simply the acquisition of knowledge and skills, for it also secures the mobility and competitiveness of nations. If even powerful economies like Germany can and have adapted to the realities on the ground, surely Malaysia must rise to the challenge, too.